Tuesday, January 31, 2012

About Style

"In order to arrive at a personal style, you have to have a technique to begin with. In other words, when I say that style is a special case of technique, you have to have the technique — you have to have a place to make the choices from. If you don't have a basis on which to make the choice, then you don't have a style at all. You have a series of accidents."

--Phillip Glass

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, etc

I am reading Edgar Allen Poe's gothic horror seafaring/Antarctica adventure novella, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. It's not a great book, I sadly must admit. Not Poe's best work by far, but I'll be glad to have read it when I write my own seafaring/Antarctica adventure novella next year or so. I think one of my characters will have read the Poe and will subscribe to the hollow earth theory despite the real-life expeditions that have gone to the continent. That might be fun. He could claim that Scott lied or was mistaken, etc. That Shackleton is a con man or something. I could enjoy that sort of thing.

But Mister Poe's prose strains my readerly sensibilities and I'm halfway through the narrative and very little has actually happened. I can see where such folks as Lovecraft got a sense of atmospheric writing and I admire the way Poe plundered his nonfiction sources, stealing factual detail to give a semblance of plausibility to his story. I recognize that technique, all right. Still, I'll be happier having read this than I am reading it.

Chekhov, meanwhile, is preparing for his Sakhalin trip. That'll be interesting.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Metanarratives For Fun and Profit

I am reading a critical edition of Edgar Allen Poe's novella The Narrative of Artur Gordon Pym of Nantucket in which the preface, footnotes and appendices outweigh Poe's text by nearly two-to-one. It's fabulous and fascinating and thought-provoking. Everything one wants from a critical edition.

I have recently read Vladimir Nabokov's novel Pale Fire, which is structured as a poem by a fictitious poet named John Shade published posthumously in a critical edition with an introduction and notes by Shade's colleague Charles Kinbote. The introduction and notes form a story of their own, as Kinbote riffs on elements of the poem and streams his consciousness through his own mighty ego and personal history. There's the possibility that the poem also comments on the personal history of Kinbote, and some readers have advanced the idea that the whole book (poem, notes, fictional(?) Kinbote backstory, etc) are all projections through the poet of a story being told from beyond the grave by Shade's daughter. I don't know about that last idea, but some folks like it. Anyway, Pale Fire is a multilayered story where the primary narrative (the poem) is expanded/commented upon by a second narrator (Kinbote) through the critical notes.

Having just read the Nabokov, I have to keep fighting against the idea that this critical edition of Pym is the same sort of book. I have to keep reminding myself that the copious footnotes do not tell a story about the editor, that the Poe narrative is not a veiled account of a conflict with the editor, who is using the notes to cast doubt upon any possible "reality" of the narrative, because the editor has something to cover up and the only way he can do that is to try to make Poe look insane or dishonest, and that if I read closely enough, I'll see all the holes in the editor's story, the cracks in his logic, etc, and then I'll know what really happened. Of course, none of this is going on in this book. But what if it was? That could be interesting. Maybe, I think, I should write something like this. I'd give the primary author a chance to write an afterword, too, where he comments on the footnotes. Then I'd let the editor (who would be a guy named Scott Bailey, I think) insert notes into the primary text itself, written after the author's afterword was written. Etc. There would be all sorts of layers and denials and accusations being made, but none of them overtly. Different type faces, etc. That could be great fun. Possibly too derivative of Nabokov, though.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Hearth and the Salamander

He saw himself in her eyes, suspended in two shining drops of bright water, himself dark and tiny, in fine detail, the lines about his mouth, everything there, as if her eyes were two miraculous bits of violet amber that might capture and hold him intact. Her face, turned to him now, was fragile milk crystal with a soft and constant light in it. It was not the hysterical light of electricity but--what? But the strangely comfortable and rare and gently flattering light of the candle. One time, as a child, in a power failure, his mother had found and lit a last candle and there had been a brief hour of rediscovery, of such illumination that space lost its vast dimensions and drew comfortably around them, and they, mother and son, alone, transformed, hoping that the power might not come on again too soon...

and this

The Mechanical Hound slept but did not sleep, lived but did not live in its gently humming, gently vibrating, softly illuminated kennel back in a dark corner of the firehouse. The dim light of one in the morning, the moonlight from the open sky framed through the great window, touched here and there on the brass and copper and steel of the faintly trembling beast.

and also this

Montag said nothing but stood looking at the women's faces as he had once looked at the faces of saints in a strange church he had entered when he was a child. The faces of those enameled creatures meant nothing to him, though he talked to them and stood in that church for a long time, trying to be of that religion, trying to know what the religion was, trying to get enough of the raw incense and special dust of the place into his lungs and thus into his blood to feel touched and concerned by the meaning of the colorful men and women with the porcelain eyes and the blood-ruby lips. But there was nothing, nothing; it was a stroll through another store, and his currency strange and unusable there, and his passion cold, even when he touched the wood and plaster and clay.

All of this is from Ray Bradbury's 1952 novella Fahrenheit 451, a 50th anniversary copy of which Mighty Reader gifted me this last Christmas, bless her. I read this book when I was 15 or 16--which is to say thirty-some years ago. I was on a Bradbury kick, reading everything of his that my school library held. The Martian Chronicles, Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Illustrated Man and probably more. I read them, I think, for their sheer weirdness, their unlikeness to anything I'd ever encountered. I read all I could over the course of a couple of months and when the library's stock of Bradbury was exhausted, I moved on to some other author and thought no more of Mr Bradbury.

And yet, thirty-odd years later, when I read his prose I see things of which I was unaware during those adolescent readings. I see how active and unsettled the writing is, how the words fight against each other on the page and refuse to let the reader's imagination rest. I see how like Hemingway it is, how like DH Lawrence, too. Fahrenheit 451 has its moments of heavy-handed preaching, surely, but by God, Ray Bradbury could write. And all these decades later, I see in my own prose the possible traces, the faded fingerprints perhaps, of his influence. I'm going to read The Martian Chronicles again, too.

But for now I'm reading The Coxon Fund, a comic novella by good old Henry James. It's hysterical, and I'm glad Melville House is reissuing such fine old novellas as this. When I'm done with James, I'm going after Nabokov.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Modernist, Schmodernist, Postschmodernist

Or: what I'm not doing with my novels.

Lately I've been reading and re-reading more postmodernist novels. Some of them are pretty straightforward (Waterland or The Fates Will Find Their Way or anything by AS Byatt) while some of them are not (Pale Fire or Life of Insects or the stories of Borges or even New York Trilogy). I have been feeling a sort of guilt, for lack of a better term, that I'm not playing more formal games with my own narratives. That I'm not experimenting or in any real way pushing the boundaries of the narrative frame. Magical realist elements, I have read lately, are all the rage in American literary fiction. Why am I not incorporating elements of magical realism into my novels? After all, I like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Gunter Grass, don't I? Sure I do.

I realize that this post is little more than an apology I'm making to myself for being in reality less cutting edge than I imagine myself to be. Having realized that I should just stop now, delete all I've written here and move on with my life as the writer I am. That would be healthy, right? But for whatever reason, I continue being my own apologist when there is in fact no accuser. What the fuck? Yet I still go on.

The focus of my work as a writer is, and always has been, the English language. I love the English language. I love what's been done with it and what can be done with it. Whole worlds can be pulled out of nothing, out of the vacuum, out of the aether, and built up with nothing but words, sentences, paragraphs. Good prose is something a guy like me can roll around in, wallow and rejoice and lose my inhibitions and get drunk upon, again and again never to be sated. I am a sucker for beautiful or startling language. For me the worth of a novel rests primarily on the power of the prose. Weak writing cannot be redeemed by anything. Powerful writing can carry a lot of narrative shortcomings a long way, in my book. Read Shakespeare and you don't care about the preposterous transvestite mistaken identities. Read Dickens and you don't care about the moralizing and the propaganda. It's all gorgeous.

Certainly I'm a modernist. Woolf. Beckett. Joyce. Chekhov (I claim him as the first real Modernist writer). Bulgakov. Conrad. Eliot. O'Connor. Faulkner. Forster. Hemingway. Kafka. Porter. Lawrence. &cet; &cet; &cet.; All of them have given me a path to follow, blazing a trail across the narrative into the heart of character.

Not so much Borges or Nabokov. Not so much Burroughs or Pynchon or Calvino or Barthelme or Gaddis or Bolano or Murakami or Wallace or Huellebecq. Some of their irony and playfulness is appealing to me as a reader, but when I sit down to write a story, none of their narrative concerns has a place at my table. Which, as I say, surprises me. Apparently I don't think postmodern concerns are important. Or possibly I don't see them as a way of exploring character. I think, maybe, that postmodernism is often about the nature of socially-constructed reality, if one can speak of that sort of "aboutness" in a meaningful sense. The nature of reality, the epistemological/ontological underpinnings of a great deal of newer fiction, isn't particularly interesting to me as a subject. The nature of character is, and I guess I don't think that postmodernism (which I am sure I am oversimplifying here) shows a way to get closer to character than modernism does. I don't see postmodernism as adding anything useful to my toolkit.

I am not attempting to bewilder so much as to beguile and bedazzle. I understand the urge to bewilder, to show how bewildering the world has become, or simply to play around with the idea of what a narrative can be or do. But I'm not ready to privilege form the way I do character and language yet. Apparently I am searching in my fiction for some kind of formal certitude, which I must tell you surprises me quite a bit. I guess the puzzle that's always nagged at me--the meaning of the word "story"--continues to nag at me and so I'm still formally trying to hem story in rather than expand/explode it. Possibly I'll never move far beyond that.

Perhaps I'm comfortable with the cliches I've inherited from my realist and modernist mentors. Or perhaps I'm just not aware that what I'm doing is riddled with cliches. One of my current preoccupations is to eliminate all cliche from my narratives; not just because cliches are a hallmark of lazy writing, but because I don't believe that cliches in language or character development or plot reflect the way real life happens. I'm reading Great Expectations right now and, while I adore a lot of what Dickens is doing, his plots are big creaky machines that telegraph all the punches and no longer have the power to surprise. Surely Dickens' plot devices were fresh enough in his day, but I can't let myself trade in the sort of coincidence and improbable revelations Charles ran past his readers on a regular basis.

Anyway, enough of all this. Possibly some day I can write about writing without a) exposing how little I actually know about the history of literature, and b) talking about nothing but myself. The odds are against both of those possibilities, however.

Monday, January 9, 2012

to abandon myself entirely to passion

I know what I am going to lecture about, but I don't know how I am going to lecture, where I am going to begin or with what I am going to end. I haven't a single sentence ready in my head. But I have only to look round the lecture-hall (it is built in the form of an amphitheatre) and utter the stereotyped phrase, "Last lecture we stopped at . . ." when sentences spring up from my soul in a long string, and I am carried away by my own eloquence. I speak with irresistible rapidity and passion, and it seems as though there were no force which could check the flow of my words. To lecture well -- that is, with profit to the listeners and without boring them -- one must have, besides talent, experience and a special knack; one must possess a clear conception of one's own powers, of the audience to which one is lecturing, and of the subject of one's lecture. Moreover, one must be a man who knows what he is doing; one must keep a sharp lookout, and not for one second lose sight of what lies before one.

A good conductor, interpreting the thought of the composer, does twenty things at once: reads the score, waves his baton, watches the singer, makes a motion sideways, first to the drum then to the wind-instruments, and so on. I do just the same when I lecture. Before me a hundred and fifty faces, all unlike one another; three hundred eyes all looking straight into my face. My object is to dominate this many-headed monster. If every moment as I lecture I have a clear vision of the degree of its attention and its power of comprehension, it is in my power. The other foe I have to overcome is in myself. It is the infinite variety of forms, phenomena, laws, and the multitude of ideas of my own and other people's conditioned by them. Every moment I must have the skill to snatch out of that vast mass of material what is most important and necessary, and, as rapidly as my words flow, clothe my thought in a form in which it can be grasped by the monster's intelligence, and may arouse its attention, and at the same time one must keep a sharp lookout that one's thoughts are conveyed, not just as they come, but in a certain order, essential for the correct composition of the picture I wish to sketch. Further, I endeavour to make my diction literary, my definitions brief and precise, my wording, as far as possible, simple and eloquent. Every minute I have to pull myself up and remember that I have only an hour and forty minutes at my disposal. In short, one has one's work cut out. At one and the same minute one has to play the part of savant and teacher and orator, and it's a bad thing if the orator gets the upper hand of the savant or of the teacher in one, or vice versa.

You lecture for a quarter of an hour, for half an hour, when you notice that the students are beginning to look at the ceiling, at Pyotr Ignatyevitch; one is feeling for his handkerchief, another shifts in his seat, another smiles at his thoughts. . . . That means that their attention is flagging. Something must be done. Taking advantage of the first opportunity, I make some pun. A broad grin comes on to a hundred and fifty faces, the eyes shine brightly, the sound of the sea is audible for a brief moment. . . . I laugh too. Their attention is refreshed, and I can go on.

No kind of sport, no kind of game or diversion, has ever given me such enjoyment as lecturing. Only at lectures have I been able to abandon myself entirely to passion, and have understood that inspiration is not an invention of the poets, but exists in real life, and I imagine Hercules after the most piquant of his exploits felt just such voluptuous exhaustion as I experience after every lecture.

That was in old times. Now at lectures I feel nothing but torture. Before half an hour is over I am conscious of an overwhelming weakness in my legs and my shoulders. I sit down in my chair, but I am not accustomed to lecture sitting down; a minute later I get up and go on standing, then sit down again. There is a dryness in my mouth, my voice grows husky, my head begins to go round. . . . To conceal my condition from my audience I continually drink water, cough, often blow my nose as though I were hindered by a cold, make puns inappropriately, and in the end break off earlier than I ought to. But above all I am ashamed.

My conscience and my intelligence tell me that the very best thing I could do now would be to deliver a farewell lecture to the boys, to say my last word to them, to bless them, and give up my post to a man younger and stronger than me. But, God, be my judge, I have not manly courage enough to act according to my conscience.

Unfortunately, I am not a philosopher and not a theologian. I know perfectly well that I cannot live more than another six months; it might be supposed that I ought now to be chiefly concerned with the question of the shadowy life beyond the grave, and the visions that will visit my slumbers in the tomb. But for some reason my soul refuses to recognize these questions, though my mind is fully alive to their importance. Just as twenty, thirty years ago, so now, on the threshold of death, I am interested in nothing but science. As I yield up my last breath I shall still believe that science is the most important, the most splendid, the most essential thing in the life of man; that it always has been and will be the highest manifestation of love, and that only by means of it will man conquer himself and nature. This faith is perhaps naive and may rest on false assumptions, but it is not my fault that I believe that and nothing else; I cannot overcome in myself this belief.

But that is not the point. I only ask people to be indulgent to my weakness, and to realize that to tear from the lecture-theatre and his pupils a man who is more interested in the history of the development of the bone medulla than in the final object of creation would be equivalent to taking him and nailing him up in his coffin without waiting for him to be dead.

Sleeplessness and the consequent strain of combating increasing weakness leads to something strange in me. In the middle of my lecture tears suddenly rise in my throat, my eyes begin to smart, and I feel a passionate, hysterical desire to stretch out my hands before me and break into loud lamentation. I want to cry out in a loud voice that I, a famous man, have been sentenced by fate to the death penalty, that within some six months another man will be in control here in the lecture-theatre. I want to shriek that I am poisoned; new ideas such as I have not known before have poisoned the last days of my life, and are still stinging my brain like mosquitoes. And at that moment my position seems to me so awful that I want all my listeners to be horrified, to leap up from their seats and to rush in panic terror, with desperate screams, to the exit.

It is not easy to get through such moments.

This is all absolutely gorgeous writing (in Constance Garnett's translation). Chekhov (of course it's Chekhov) is in complete control of his material and the passage has a lot of energy, a lot of forward movement despite the fact that none of this has anything to do directly with the through-action of the story (whatever that is). The change in tone from the nearly ecstatic opening to the understated resignation of "It is not easy to get through such moments" is masterfully done.

I'm beginning to wonder how much of Chekhov's prose Samuel Beckett read. The overall tone and the black humor of "A Dreary Story" (which is what I'm quoting here) seem to be precursors to Beckett's "Molloy" trilogy. But of course I am likely drawing lines of influence where none exist, imagining a web of literary causation that exists nowhere but in my own head. I suppose we all do this, and I don't suppose it's a bad thing. Probably I can make some sort of use of my association of Chekhov with Beckett, and my associations of Beckett with Joyce and on and on like that, but I don't know what use that would be. No use, Beckett would tell me. And he'd be right.